After a hair raising anomaly on July 4th that temporarily suspended all scientific instruments on board, NASA's New Horizons probe is back in business and it's sending back some remarkable images of Pluto. They are also the most detailed images of Pluto, by far, in history. Even pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope have been little more than cloudy-looking blobs. Why? It's because Pluto is so very, very, very far away. How far away? Well, let's put it this way: if the Earth was the size of a basketball that would make Pluto about the size of a golf ball ... and it would be about fifty miles away from the basketball. Like I said: far.
Here's another way to think about it: even traveling at approximately 30,000 miles per hour (over 48,000 kilometers per) the New Horizons Probe has been on its way to Pluto since 2006! So this is the first time we've ever gotten anything even remotely close enough to Pluto to get decent images. And the images that we're getting from New Horizons are pretty amazing. One shows a heart-shaped formation on the surface. Another shows a whale shaped formation. The images and other data are sure to become more and more detailed over the next five days, as New Horizons gets closer and closer to Pluto and it's moon, Charon.
NASA engineers are making the most of every moment that New Horizons is anywhere within range of Pluto because they're only getting one shot at this. As planned, New Horizons has used up all of its fuel doing course corrections, so it won't be going into orbit around Pluto. It will just be doing a flyby ... at 30,000 miles per hour.
NASA scientists are already hypothesizing that the heart-shape on Pluto's surface "may be a region where relatively fresh deposits of frost-perhaps including frozen methane, nitrogen and/or carbon monoxide-form a bright coating." Images of the region, taken by New Horizon's Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) when the spacecraft was just under 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) from Pluto were the first images sent back by the probe since the July 4th anomaly. NASA scientists were overjoyed. The heart shaped region is big. It is approximately 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) across. The formation dubbed "the whale", in contrast, is one of the darkest regions currently visible to New Horizons. It's also quite large, roughly 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in diameter, about 50% wider that the 'heart.'
"The next time we see this part of Pluto at closest approach, a portion of this region will be imaged at about 500 times better resolution than we see today," says Jeff Moore, Geology, Geophysics and Imaging Team Leader of NASA's Ames Research Center. "It will be incredible!" ... That is, as long as they can avoid any more "anomalies".